Imagine the release of new and updated products as a parade. We gather around the marketplace watching companies advertise their latest output- some products destined for immortality, most destined for far less. Each company strides past the crowds with regal bearing as we scrutinize them in a usability exercise I call: “Emperor Spotting.”
In the “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” two clever but lazy tailors convince an Emperor that the clothes they’ve made for him have magic properties. Anyone unworthy won’t be able to see them, the unscrupulous tailors claim, when in fact, there are no clothes at all. The Emperor, fearing he will reveal himself as unworthy by admitting he can’t see the non-existent clothes, parades in the buff through the city streets before his entire kingdom. From the onlookers a small child points a finger and shouts “Look! The Emperor has no clothes!”
The child’s cry breaks the spell and the populace is freed from fear (contradicting the Emperor openly), confusion (“Is there something going on here that I’m not comprehending?”), speaking (“I just saw the Emperor’s junk and have a desperate need to blog about it”) and slavish adherence to advisors (“Those tailors were either crazy or mean!”).
Companies who produce sub-par products can exhibit an Emperor-like blindness to how awry the development process has gone. They put too much faith in their tailors and stride regally forward to market despite the winds chilling their backsides and the blush rising to their cheeks. Spotting an “Emperor” – a company resolutely promoting a product so badly designed, so naked and so fixedly unaware of its flaws– makes us feel like the Child in the story.
Nokia Gives Up Control
The famous parable often ends with the Child’s shout. Rarely do we learn what happens to the Emperor afterwards. But when a top-tier company like Nokia, with a legacy of excellence, deep financial resources and a globally respected outreach gives up its software development to Microsoft, we are given a rare glimpse at the next part of the story. We see the Emperor, with the Child’s voice still echoing in his ears, looking down at his naked form and realizing that self-delusion is a no cloak at all.
When Nokia laid down its scepter by giving up on software development for its mobile phones, the company crowned itself a naked Emperor then immediately demoted itself to Cobbler right there in the streets.
How could this happen? Critics and chroniclers of Nokia’s decision to give up developing software for its products laud the company as full of leading-edge engineers capable of making durable, effective and popular hardware. However, the two articles below argue that over the years Nokia has been willfully blind to a marketplace enamored less with robust engineering and more with customization, size and shape variations. They ignored a populace tired of confusing interfaces crammed with hard to use “features.” They correctly assessed the size of the American market but vastly underestimated its trendsetting power. Most recently, they misinterpreted the thunderous success of the iPhone as a feat of engineering, not one of user experience design. It is this last– that Nokia thought it was competing on the quality of its hardware, not the usability of its software – that may have led them naked to the streets.
What Nokia Missed
Where Nokia saw the iPhone as a minor step forward from an engineering standpoint, they may have ignored two key aspects of its success:
1. iPhones did things other phones purported to do easier
2. Apple put the user experience dead center.
Setting aside the runaway success of Apps, it is apparent the iPhone’s cognitive model is designed to facilitate the accomplishment of users’ tasks with ease and efficiency. It’s about making technology accessible, invisible and yes, artful. Apple’s ability to boil feature after feature down to their core essences, reducing the number of keystrokes and button presses required to accomplish key tasks – returning interaction to the most basic of human gestures – made a difference. They put UX first.
Unfortunately, replicating that success is rarely a feat of hardware engineering. Competitors who do the same thing they always have but through a touchscreen are missing the mark.
How could a company as powerful and brilliant as Nokia, with a generations-long track record of innovation and excellence blunder so thoroughly, so willfully, and for so long? (I am assuming it is a blunder primarily because Nokia said it was by laying down its Software Scepter in the middle of the streets and abdicating an estimated 15 calendar years worth of effort and expense.)
The answer to this question may lie in the very wellspring from which the iPhone draws its success: By single-mindedly adhering to the view that what was important about mobile phone use was related directly to its hardware and nothing else, and by becoming mired in programming-centric approaches that led to UI designs, rather than UI designs that led to programming approaches, Nokia sowed the seeds of its own failure.
Blinded By Development
Two interesting recent publications support the hypothesis that Nokia was blinded by its development process and failed to pay adequate attention to creating viable user experiences:
In his article What Happened to Nokia?
, former Nokia employee Mark Wilcox describes the inner workings of Nokia’s development processes, and outlines how mired the company had become in a technology-first atmosphere that relegated the smartphone UI to the back burner.
“. . . I don't mean that they're incompetent engineers – far from it. They were incompetent at designing APIs for 3rd party developers (a very specialist engineering skill) and they were incompetent at designing UIs (which most engineers are, myself included). Unfortunately they were doing both, as evidenced by the code, and the comment of one Nokia designer at a Symbian Foundation meeting who was publicly cornered into revealing that the S^4 UI design patterns had been reverse engineered from the code.”
If the phrase “design patterns had been reverse engineered from the code” doesn’t send a chill down the back of any usability professional, I don’t know what will. Wilcox is describing the exact antithesis of a user-centered design process where end-user information needs and goals drive technology choices rather than the reverse. Given the widespread global adoption of user centered design research and practice, the proliferation of usability teams within companies (including Nokia) over the last two decades and the wealth of published proof that good UX increases ROI, it’s chilling to see a company so immune to the charms of user-centered design.
Drawing on Wilcox’s article, journalist for The Register Andrew Orlowski, furthers Wilcox’s assertions through his own reporting. He writes in his article Why Nokia Failed: ‘Wasted 2,000 man years on UIs that didn’t work’
“The UX matters: it's the first thing potential customers see when a friend passes them their new phone in the pub. A well-designed UX is consistent, forgiving and rewarding; Nokia's user experience was inconsistent, unforgiving and hostile. Nokia's designers honed in with meticulous attention to the wrong detail. Apple's iPhoneOS UI had some unusual features – smooth graphics that played transitions at 60-frames-per-second, thanks to a dedicated graphics chip. Instead of redesigning the entire UX, Nokia acquired expensive professional-grade video cameras to determine the animation speed, and having confirmed that yes, it was 60fps, tried to recreate the transitions.”
From these two articles we see a converging picture of a company familiar with fighting engineering battles, but largely ineffective at understanding what makes an interface simple to use. By letting the former drive the latter in deference to established best practices, and by interpreting the challenge issued by the iPhone as one of components, rather than user experience- these articles assert- Nokia missed the point entirely.
These articles are especially worth reading for anyone who has asked, or been asked, the question: What is the Return on Investment of usability? Someone may yet put a price on the estimated “2000 man-years” of wasted effort, the wounding of the Emperor’s pride, and the heartbreak of thousands of disillusioned employees.
The moral of this Emperor’s New Clothes tale remains clear: Focus on the user experience first and you are far more likely to succeed. Focus on the technical underpinnings first and you may find yourself strutting down the street in full view of the populace with all the wrong things on display.